Friday, January 22, 2010

The Imagined Village / Chris Wood @ The Town Hall, Thursday 21st January 2010

Crossing genres, cultures and generations The Imagined Village really shouldn’t work (the basic idea is to take a bunch of traditional folk tunes and reinterpret them for 21st century Britain). In fact it should come across as some awful mish mash of sounds, like two competing car radios (one playing Radio 4, the other 1 Extra) at a set of traffic lights. The fact that it does work says a great deal about the musical talents at the core of this project and the openness of everyone involved to really mess around with what ‘folk’ music means these days. In truth, although the first Imagined Village album (released in 2007) won ‘folk’ awards, this stuff is closer to ‘world’ music than anything else, given the strong Asian and Middle Eastern flavours running through some of the arrangements. Anyway, that’s the musical analysis over with (there’ll be questions at the end).

Before the main event one of the Village people…hmmm no…that’s a different kind of band altogether…Chris Wood warmed us all up with half a dozen songs mainly taken from his current album ‘Handmade Life’. Chris is an instantly loveable figure, interspersing his songs with little snapshots of his life (such as a desire to toot his car horn every time he sees the sign that says Welcome to Kent (his home county) like Mr Toad in Wind in the Willows. Bless him. He’s more than capable of unleashing a vitriolic side though on tracks like set highlight, ‘The Grand Correction’ – a scathing (and entirely justified attack) on the culture of greed that’s created the biggest financial mess in history and its principal architects.

Suitably warmed up the Imagined Village collective (all ten of ‘em) took to the stage, kicking off with ‘Sweet Jane’ from new album ‘Empire and Love’. Some hypnotic sitar playing together with Chris Wood’s mellow tones neatly summed up what the project set out to do, weaving traditional English folk with the sounds of other cultures. Next up Martin Carthy delivered a storming version of ‘John Barleycorn’ which almost wandered into dubby territory from time to time. Folk and dub…whatever next? How about a sultry Eliza Carthy singing an obscure Ewan MacColl track ‘Space Girl’, transformed into a weirdly catchy Asian/Gypsy/Egyptian/Exotica hybrid? Oh yes. Theramin, sitar, dhol drums, cellos, a kitchen sink (well, almost) they threw the whole lot in there tonight and…amazingly…it worked. Another set highlight was a subtle retelling of 'Scarborough Fair'. The ever chatty Chris Wood introduced it “Bob Dylan had a go at it. Not bad. Simon and Garfunkel had quite a lot of success with it. But they were all missing something. A Sitar!”. In truth, like Cornershop’s cover of Norwegian Wood, the sitar’s perfectly suited to the slightly dreamy nature of the arrangement and Chris struggled to contain his sheer joy at the success of, what on paper, looks like a pretty weird idea.

The best track of the night for me however was 'My Son John'. Folk, believe it or not, is the original four letter word. If John Lydon had been around in 1779 he’d have been a folk singer…in the fex pistolf no doubt. It’s music of protest and passion, music by the people, for the people. Although there’s a fair bit of ‘diddle diddle dee’ stuff and songs about wooing a nadger’s daughter, there’s far more to it than that. ‘My Son John’ is the perfect example, a bitter anti war song about a young man who has his legs blown off in the war…the Napoleonic war that is. Although tonight’s version added new lines about the current conflicts, at its heart there’s a lyric that goes back well over a century or so. Sadly it’s as relevant today as it was back then, all you have to do is to replace the bits about cannonballs blowing off a young man’s legs with the words ‘landmine’ or ‘IUD’. Tonight the song (delivered once more by Martin Carthy) ended up in a kind of mass jam featuring sitar, dhol drumming, cello, synths, guitars and fiddles. If only the human race could make the same kind of gloriously harmonious noise off stage eh?

After a standing ovation (yes, it was a sit down gig) from the near capacity crowd the encore included the Village’s by now well known retelling of ‘Hard Times of Old England’ and then…believe it or not…a version of what Martin Carthy called “Wolverhampton folk”, Slade’s ‘Cum on Feel The Noize’. Yes…really. This time it’s played as a slowed down lament, almost wistful, like an old man looking back on his life. Perhaps that’s why Martin, at 68 and about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the start of his career, chose it? However, given tonight’s performance I’m sure there’ll be plenty of opportunities for him to get “wild, wild, wild” still. The ovation that followed, the sold out merchandise table (how often does that happen these days?) and the long queue to meet the group afterwards just go to prove that not all English villages are sleepy little places.

Head over to Gig Junkies in the next few days and you can read all of this again...this time with pretty pictures from the gig courtesy of Mr Wayne Fox Esq!

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